APIA History Month Spotlight: Margaret Cho, Preeti Mistry and Anita Lo

It’s Asian/Pacific Islander American Heritage Month and we at AfterEllen.com have seized this opportunity to highlight the dynamic careers and contributions of queer APIA women to the entertainment industry and visibility for queer women of color. Due to the overall dearth of out queer Asian women in the industry — which is puzzling as Asia houses the two most populous countries in the world — we’ll also extend the list to those women who’ve played gay on-screen (willingly and enthusiastically) and some who are not American.

Margaret Cho

Very few people can make Korean/gay/women jokes while being totally socially acceptable, tasteful, and gosh darn hilarious. In fact (correct me if I’m wrong) Margaret Cho is quite possibly the only person in this solar system who can do just that, yet so politically and progressively. With successful projects in music, TV, film, and, of course, stand-up, Cho has been able to shed light on the ignorance of mainstream America and beyond through her sexual, racial, political and feminist humor, thereby creating awareness and discussion.

Specifically, Cho has used icon status to foster visibility for queer issues, Asian women, and queer Asian women altogether, all the while attracting hundreds of thousands fans worldwide to sold-out shows. Her tours have included the hugely successful Notorious C.H.O. and Revolution, and she’s been involved with the gay issues awareness-raising True Colors tour, the one-woman show “I’m the One that I Want,” the Lifetime TV show Drop Dead Diva, and her upcoming album entitled Banjovi, among many other things.

Photo by Lindsey Byrnes

And, apart from her entertainment career, Cho has also been heavily active in the queer rights movement, using her fame to call national attention to LGBT activism, racial injustices, and other progressive political matters.

Preeti Mistry & Anita Lo

Bravo’s Top Chef: Las Vegas and Top Chef Masters brought us two queer Asian contestants in 2009: Preeti Mistry and Anita Lo, respectively.

Though Mistry didn’t win the jackpot during the Las Vegas season, she was the show’s first queer South Asian contestant, and brought a little Indian-inspired flavor to her cooking on the show. A San Francisco native, Mistry was previously an executive chef at Bon Appetit management company at Google’s headquarters, where she ran Charlie’s, the largest cafe on the Mountain View, CA campus, serving 3,000 people all day.

Preeti says her experience at Charlie’s was wonderful, but is now working on a restaurant concept to bring “authentic and inventive Indian street food” to San Francisco. Her mom’s Gujarati food is the inspiration for her upcoming restaurant and menu, part of her goal to have more Indian restaurants in the US.

Chinese-American lesbian Anita Lo continues to be one of the most talented and successful chefs in the country, advocating heavily for women, people of color, and LGBT people in the often discriminatory world of food. Upon entering the culinary industry, the French-trained Detroit, Michigan native was initially pegged as an “Asian chef,” who, presumably, knew only about Asian cuisine, but after fighting hard against the hostility and sexism that plagues the culinary industry, Lo succeeded and opened Annisa restaurant in New York and Rickshaw Dumpling Bar.Her restaurant, Annisa, is run primarily by females, and its wine list specifically highlights female wine makers, demonstrating only one of the ways through which Lo has helped to showcase those underrepresented in the culinary world.

As for her TV culinary success, Lo beat out Mario Batali on Iron Chef, was the only female finalist on Masters and the only chef in Top Chef history to net a near-perfect score of 24.5/25.

Honorable Mentions: Sheetal Sheth and Lisa Ray

Yes, Sheetal Sheth and Lisa Ray are two different people and should be acknowledged separately, but if you’ve seen The World Unseen and I Can’t Think Straight, then you know why they should always be coupled together. The two actresses — Sheth, of South Asian descent, and Ray, who’s half-Indian — have steamed up the aforementioned indie lesbian flicks as well as AfterEllen.com’s Hot 100 (Ray at #30, Sheth at #76). The two have worked hard to bring their LGBT/South Asian films to the forefront, in addition to advocating tirelessly for LGBT rights for all.

Ray, having been diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2009, has also been bravely fighting cancer, while blogging about her experience, and recently underwent a successful stem cell transplant that rendered her cancer-free.

While New Jersey-born Sheth and Canadian Ray have not identified as queer, their support of and enthusiasm for the queer women’s issues is commendable and deserving of our applause.

Check back every week in May for more tributes to gay and gay-friendly APIA women.